Panel examines gerrymandering

The shorthand, said Daniel Ortiz of the University of Virginia School of Law, is “cracking” and “packing.” This involves identifying a population cluster politically similar and “cracking” them into different districts to dilute their vote, or “packing” a district with as many politically homogenous voters as possible.

Partisan redistricting reduces political competition by making it difficult or even impossible for the minority party to win.

It can also make politicians less responsive to constituents, State Senator Jill Vogel (R-27th) said. “It’s not just a question of having integrity,” she said. “Just try representing a district that has been chopped and diced and put together from different parts.”

Her district includes Winchester and parts of six counties stretching from the West Virginia border almost to Fredericksburg. 

Vogel, now the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has been arguing without much luck for redistricting reform during much of her decade in the Virginia Senate.

The big change she has seen in recent years is that the public is much more aware of the issue. She said the increasing pressure on politicians, particularly in town halls and other public forums, could help move legislation forward. 

Several panelists mentioned a case currently before the Supreme Court that will require justices to rule on specific motivations behind redistricting.

In Gill v. Whitford, the justices heard arguments that the voting maps in Wisconsin were created with the intent of benefitting Republicans. Opposing attorneys argued that there were factors beyond party affiliation that went into creating the map.

Ortiz said that one of the things that had kept the courts from taking up gerrymandering cases in recent years was a perceived lack of an accurate test of intent, so about four years ago, a group of academics created a simple formula called the “efficiency gap.”

Most elections are simple majority: The winning candidate is the person who gets even a single vote over 50 percent.

The efficiency gap test looks at the number of “wasted” votes. Any vote for the losing candidate is considered waste, as are any votes for the winner above that 50-percent-plus-one-vote margin. The formula then creates a percentage of wasted votes. Studies using the formula have found that an efficiency gap of about 7 percent indicates a district that can’t be won by the minority party. 

In their arguments, lawyers presented the justices with evidence that the efficiency gap in Wisconsin was 13 percent.
The efficiency gap test may not have swayed the more conservative members of the court.

Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said, “The thing that scared me the most was [Chief] Justice [John] Roberts calling the efficiency gap ‘sociological gobbledygook.’”

Most panelists agreed that the case will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, and it’s not entirely clear how he is going to lean. That’s not comforting to Cannon, who called this “our last shot to fix it” for the foreseeable future.

California is a good example of what moving against gerrymandering might look like. Back in 2010, the citizens of California voted overwhelmingly to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians themselves and give it to a non-partisan commission.

Political scientist and recently-relocated Californian Michael Latner described the process. The committee is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four members who belong to neither major party.

“On average, the margin of victory dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent after [2011] redistricting reform,” Latner said. While that’s still not as competitive as it should be, it is a tangible sign of progress, he said.
Latner noted that it’s always a challenge to come up with a perfect balance in redistricting. Even something that seems straightforward, like making geographically compact districts, can produce biased results.

Cannon said he would like to see average citizens all over the Commonwealth use publically-available redistricting software to create their own maps, based on their personal preferences. Overlapping a few thousand such maps might create a fair and reasonably non-partisan system.

“I think of it kind of like a stew,” he said. “You don’t want [districts] to have too much of any one thing.”

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